One of the most experienced in the game, Raphael Assuncao, will go to battle once more with brutal kicker, Marlon Moraes, this Saturday (Feb. 2, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 144, which will stream live online via ESPN+ from inside Northeast Olympic Training Center in Fortaleza, Brazil.
Stopping for a moment to take a look back at Assuncao’s career is really an eye-opening experience. We begin all the way back in 2004, when Assuncao began his professional career as Lightweight. In his first seven fights as Lightweight, Assuncao never tasted defeat and handed men like Jorge Masvidal and Joe Lauzon losses. The Brazilian dropped to Featherweight soon after, becoming a contender in World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). The single rough patch of his career occurred right around the end of WEC, causing Assuncao to drop down to 135 pounds after his Octagon debut. The results have been spectacular: he has won 11 of 12 Bantamweight fights and is in continual pursuit of the title.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Sometimes, the statistics really don’t tell the whole story. Such is the case for Assuncao, a man with disproportionate power punching compared to a mere four knockout victories in a 15 year career. Now, I’m not trying to imply that Assuncao is John Lineker, but the Brazilian’s overhand right has never failed to secure his opponent’s respect (GIF).
Assuncao could be described casually as a counter striker, and that certainly isn’t wrong. At the same time, that label tends to attach itself to men like Lyoto Machida and Stephen Thompson, who will run laps around the Octagon to stay safe and wait for the perfect opening.
No disrespect to those men, but that ain’t Assuncao.
The Brazilian is not afraid to stand inside the kicking range and hang in the pocket for a bit. In fact, Assuncao spends a decent portion of his fights advancing, looking for his opportunity to duck into that heavy overhand. Unlike a great many of his peers, however, Assuncao maintains a tight control of distance. Whether he’s leading or fighting from the back foot, Assuncao does his best to stay at the very end of his opponent’s strikes, allowing him to either pull back slightly or block effectively.
Assuncao walks a tightrope of distance management. When his opponent throws something his way, Assuncao does not back way off in the hopes of staying safe at the cost of his own offense. Instead, Assuncao is always hoping to taking a step backward or at an angle, staying close enough to land his counter right hand (GIF).
While staying in range — almost all of Assuncao’s general kickboxing habits apply whether he’s moving backward or forward — Assuncao is active with his own offense. For a fighter who’s generally shorter than his opponents, the Brazilian does nice work with his jab. Occasionally doubling up and generally using his feints well, Assuncao’s jab slips through often enough to set up his right. In addition, Assuncao likes to follow his right hand with the jab, which is something of an uncommon habit in MMA.
Because of his height and length, Assuncao is not able to fully control the flow of the fight with the jab alone. As such, Assuncao relies on his low kicks heavily. Against both Southpaws and Orthodox opponents, Assuncao is looking to dig deep into the thigh or calf (GIF). Assuncao is a smart low kicker: he knows how much set up is required. If the Brazilian is going to the calf, he’ll swing away, as that’s a tough kick to check meaningfully. When Assuncao is trying to attack the thigh, he’s sure to set it up with a feint or jab.
Assuncao has some kick tricks up his sleeve. Sometimes, he’ll look to counter the jab with a switch-kick to the gut. In addition, Assuncao frequently looks to parry past his opponent’s front or body kicks, chopping at the leg as it flies to the side. Occasionally, he’ll spin into a hook kick as his opponent’s steps forward.
Assuncao is still not the most complicated or varied striker. However, he’s direct proof that fundamentals and excellent range control are more than enough to win lots of fights.
Though he doesn’t rely upon the takedown so heavily anymore, Assuncao is certainly an above-average offensive wrestler. The wrestling aspect of his game is fairly simple as well. Assuncao’s mastery of range control and tight defense allow him a great deal of comfort in exchanges, and Assuncao’s patient approach generally means he has a strong understanding of his opponent’s habits and timing. As such, Assuncao’s ability to duck a double leg shot underneath an opponent’s jab or power punch is strong.
Once in on the hips of an opponent mid-punch, the takedown comes easy. Alternatively, Assuncao will occasionally look to force the double leg along the fence, but that’s more indicative of his past approach.
Assuncao’s defensive wrestling is really stellar, and again, a huge portion of the success can be attributed to distance control. While Assuncao’s does not have the type of ultra power hips that allow any shot to be repulsed with ease, he does fight vigorously on the clinch and the mat to deny the shot. A great deal of fighters miss either the tools to properly defend takedowns or the mentality to keep up with the transitions, but Assuncao has both halves necessary to routinely and repeatedly deny takedowns from quality wrestlers.
A longtime jiu-jitsu black belt, Assuncao’s top game doesn’t come into play quite as often now that he’s primarily a striker. However, the Brazilian has still managed to show off his grappling talents in recent years, and there are some great technical highlights from across his career.
Assuncao’s top game focuses a great deal on should pressure and guard passing. His last bout with Rob Font, for example, demonstrated some stellar top pressure. Font was active in his attempts to stand and varied his approach, but the Brazilian always had an answer. When Font attempted to kick at his hips, Assuncao would jam a leg down and step into half guard. From there, his heavy shoulder pressure quickly flattened Font back down and usually allowed Assuncao to break into side control or mount. Font also used a high guard and triangle attempts to force scrambles, but Assuncao stacked him over his head and punched him until Font was forced to surrender a worse position.
Watching Assuncao transition on the mat, it’s clear he’s an arm-hunter, and his record reflects that with six of his 10 submissions landing via armbar. His most recent and sole Octagon finish came via armbar, and it was a rather extraordinary one. Opposite Vaughn Lee, a sudden cut over Assuncao’s left eye put some pressure on the Brazilian to end things quickly.
A takedown along the fence and easy slide into mount helped Assuncao achieve that goal. Immediately, Assuncao transitioned to the S-Mount, a position where one arm is trapped by the top fighter’s high knee pressure and the other arm is hooked with the top man’s other leg. This position already threatens the arm, but Assuncao fully committed to the hold. That allowed Lee to improve his position a bit by sitting up and forcing Assuncao to fall off, but the Brazilian looked to counter by rolling belly down. There was something of a stalemate for a moment, one Assuncao broke by reaching through Lee’s legs and rolling him to his back. Now faced solely with breaking Lee’s grip, Assuncao smartly pulled Lee’s non-trapped wrist closer to him, changing the angle of his pull and causing Lee’s hands to release.
Brilliant from start, transition, to finish (GIF).
Assuncao is one of the best non-champion Bantamweights in history. Of course, the Brazilian is trying to achieve full recognition and capture that belt. His somewhat recent loss to T.J. Dillashaw hurts his odds, but with a second win over Moraes, Assuncao at least earns himself a chance to try.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.